By Isaac Feldman
Comparing how the “UFC on FOX” cards started in 2011 to how they’re ending on Saturday night — a new broadcast deal with ESPN begins in January — sums up how much the sport of mixed martial arts has evolved over the course of the seven-year TV deal.
The first fight of the “UFC on FOX” era aired on Nov. 12, 2011, from Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., on broadcast FOX aka “big FOX.” FOX Sports put all their bells and whistles into the event: a long, drawn-out pre-fight show, Curt Menefee on the desk, the same production value to which NFL fans were accustomed, and a dream heavyweight title fight between Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos.
The problem was FOX and UFC decided to air just one fight for the national audience: a heavyweight fight between two devastating strikers. So the UFC’s big debut on FOX TV lasted just 64 seconds before Dos Santos landed a huge knockout punch, an overhand right to Velasquez’s temple. This left the 8.8 million viewers and Menefee with their minds blown — and with a ton of air time to fill.
UFC and FOX quickly learned to air more than one fight, and started to pump out more extensive events in January 2012. Twenty months later, the UFC moved to FOX Sports 1, which turned out to be a very welcoming home for MMA. On FS1’s launch day, Aug. 17, 2013, they kicked off their primetime programming with a stacked six-fight UFC card. Fight fans no longer had to run over to FX and Fuel TV for UFC action.
This is when the fun started. It gave young stars a platform to be seen and heard. Whenever you think of the best trash talkers who also walked the walk, Conor McGregor has to be up there. McGregor was put on the very first FS1 card, and beat a young Max Holloway (now the featherweight champion) by unanimous decision. It was a star-making turn. McGregor headlined his next fight in his home country of Ireland. The rest is history.
Fast-forward to Saturday’s “UFC on FOX 31” card in Milwaukee (8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT). The four-fight main card airing on big FOX features everything the UFC has built over the past seven years. Here’s a look at the end of a transformative era:
FOX’s final fight: The main-event rematch of Kevin Lee and Al Iaquinta is a proper way for UFC on FOX to end. Trash talkers and great performances were the basis for the successful seven-year run, and viewers get both from Lee and Iaquinta.“Raging Al,” a Long Island native, is a knockout artist who’s been a thorn in the UFC’s side outside of the cage. The 31-year-old is outspoken and has had no problem turning down fights because the purse wasn’t good enough. Lee, 26, is the UFC’s darling. The Detroit native is a well-spoken, good-looking fighter who had a crack at the lightweight title last year (he lost to Tony Ferguson). Iaquinta was responsible for Lee’s first pro loss in 2014. A title is one or two more wins away for the victor.
Getting their kicks: One thing that consistently entices casual MMA fans is a fight that will involve close to no grappling and will be a straight kickboxing war. Edson Barboza, known as the best kicker in MMA, faces a younger version of himself in New Zealand’s Dan Hooker in the co-main event. Barboza, 32, is on a two-fight losing streak from running into the lightweight division’s best wrestlers, Lee and Khabib Nurmagomedov, who neutralized Barboza's best weapons. The Brazilian looks to get back into the win column when he faces the 28-year-old Hooker, a rising star with championship aspirations.
Two paths, same goal: The second fight features Boston’s Rob Font going against hometown kid Sergio Pettis. Font has earned every opportunity he has received, and is looking to make a statement. Pettis, the younger brother of former UFC champion Anthony “Showtime” Pettis, has ascended to fight the best in part because of his brother’s fame. Sergio Pettis’ hot start in UFC cooled as he lost two of his past three fights. The winner earns respect and gets positioned to make a run at the bantamweight title.
Clash of record holders: The card kicks off with two veteran lightweights who have evolved their games around what got them to the dance: their heart and grappling expertise. Jim Miller, a gritty, grind-it-out fighter who holds the record for the most UFC bouts (30), will rematch Charles Oliveira, who holds the record for most UFC submissions (11). The funny thing is Miller has a submission win over the Brazilian from 2010. Look for Oliveira to get revenge by enticing Miller into a game of chess.
Follow Isaac Feldman, Pete Hoffman, and Outside the Cage on Twitter for all your MMA and UFC coverage. Listen to their "Outside The Cage" podcast. The next live post-fight show is Dec. 30 after UFC 232 from midnight-2 a.m. ET on CBS Sports Radio.